The Indian American dancer was recently selected for the Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME) program.
For as long as she remembers, Nadhi Thekkek has been dancing and performing. An accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer, Thekkek is the artistic director of San Francisco-based Nava Dance Theatre. She uses the classical South Indian dance form as a mode of expression as well as a respite from the troubles around the world.
Earlier this month, Thekkek was chosen as one of the three mentees of the reputed Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME), a mentorship program for professional choreographers run by the Bay Area-based Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. As a mentee, she will receive support for a year.
In a wide-ranging interview with the American Bazaar, Thekkek speaks about her dance career, Bharatnatyam and its relevance in America today.
Tell us about Nava Dance Theatre. When did you take up the role of artistic director and what is your vision?
Nava Dance Theatre is a Bharatanatyam dance company. Through the company, I create productions exploring contemporary themes and collaborations. For instance, in my last work with co-creator and Indian miniature painter Rupy C. Tut, we explored the British Indian partition and the burden that it has left on a generation. In our next work, Broken Seeds Still Grow: Taking Root we explore South Asian history in America and what it really means to find your homeland and belong somewhere, but at the same time be straddled between two nations. As the Artistic Director of Nava Dance Theatre, my job is to find dancers, musicians, collaborators who align with visions like these. To bring them together, to learn from each other. I hope this inspires people to dig deep and find how these themes relate to their own lives. At the same time, I want them to lose themselves in the art (music, dance, visuals), however it speaks to them.
Tell us a bit about your background and when the love of Bharatnatyam begin?
I was born in San Francisco, but brought up all over the Bay Area. I learned from an amazing teacher, Smt. Sundara Swaminthan, the artistic director of Kala Vandana Dance Company in San Jose. She instilled not only a strong foundation in Bharatanatyam, but also a love and passion for choreography, creation, and ensemble work. When I was in graduate school in Houston I learned with another teacher Smt. Padmini Chari who encouraged me to see and try new things with Bharatanatyam, and brought me to Chennai to show me what was out there. She wanted me to decide for myself what I liked and didn’t like. Since moving from Houston in 2013, I started learning from Sri. A. Lakshmanswamy in Chennai. He is pushing me to improvise and try to find myself in each piece, to be true to myself and what the character calls for.
I decided, after having my first daughter, that I had a choice to make. I’m naturally a workaholic, so either I work a 60-hour week and be a professor, or work a 60-hour week and be a dancer. So I made the choice to dance full time, while my body was young and malleable. I had a lot of support from my colleagues who allowed me to fumble and make mistakes but encouraged me to keep going, and also support from the SF dance community by way of funding to really explore my creative voice. CounterPulse, Zellerbach, CA$H Grants, Dancers’ Group were all early supports at a critical time. Going to Chennai 1x or 2x a year for month long residencies with my teacher (Lakshman Master) were also crucial to my development. Also getting to see a lot of dance (though it feels like it’s never enough!) has been an important part of my journey as well — learning from seniors by way of watching and hearing them speak is invaluable to us young dancers.
You present classical dance in a contemporary format but still do not call it fusion. Explain this to us.
Fusion is beautiful! I love how people thoughtfully blend styles of music and dance. There are truly inspiring examples of it all over the world. But I believe to do fusion well you need to be well versed in the different styles of dance or music that you are fusing. So, I don’t think I can or should do fusion because I have only been trained in Bharatanatyam, so I really don’t have any authority to fuse styles that I haven’t trained in. That being said, for instance if we believe one kalari movement might help our theme, we might incorporate it after consulting experts and really looking at what motivates the incorporation of that movement. I take on contemporary themes, but I don’t do contemporary dance — I do Bharatanatyam because that is the language my body happens to speak. That is what my body has been doing for nearly three decades. For examples, we may dream in a certain language — that might be considered our language or “mother tongue.” Similarly, Bharatanatyam is that language that I dream in, and in a way, it is my “mother tongue,” and I hope to continue to learn and expand my knowledge of this one form, because even a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to understand what is possible with it.
How relevant is it in times today to showcase traditional dance forms from India to the western world? How do you think it goes on to create a positive awareness about your culture?
I believe it is necessary, now more than ever, for our histories, our art forms, and our stories to occupy or share space in the American landscape. South Asians have been here for more than 100 years. And I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel I am very much here, in this soil, in this homeland. At one point when my grandmother was still alive, she, my mother, me and my daughters lived within a one mile radius. And I don’t know when was the last time something like that happened in my family. If this is who we are and where we are, we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to represent every part of us.
You are scheduled to perform in New York City on January 13. Tell us about the solo program. What is its theme and what are you looking ahead at?
This is a departure from the work I do in the company. Usually we take contemporary and historical themes and explore them using the Bharatanatyam medium, but here I look at the traditional repertoire of Bharatanatyam and reimagine the lyrics to align with the relationships around me in my life. I wanted to find joy despite the state of the world. I want to give myself and people around respite through love. This solo work contains new music by composer GS Rajan who conceptualized the pieces with me.
Thekkek will be performing on January 13, at 2 pm, at Navatman Studios NYC, 38 W 32nd Street New York.